Sunday, December 21, 2014

Advent 4B, 2014: Partnering with God

Lectionary: Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; Canticle 15; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8, 19-28
Preacher: The Rev Dr Valori Mulvey Sherer, Rector

En el nombre del Dios: Padre, Hijo, y Espiritu Santo. Amen.

As many of you know, Mary has been an important part of my spiritual life since I was a little child. Mary has been a constant presence, strength, and inspiration for me as I have grown in age and spirit. She has truly been for me, theotokos, the God-bearer, bringing Christ into my life and experience in very real ways.

These experiences taught me that I, too, am a God-bearer. We all are. The Spirit of Christ dwells in each of us, and we are called to bear that into the world – each in our own way, in very real ways, according to God’s plan.

The Church’s teachings about Mary – whether or not she herself was conceived without sin and whether or not she conceived Jesus as a virgin or by her husband – have been a source of disagreement and debate throughout our history. For Episcopalians, belief in the doctrines of the immaculate conception, and the virgin birth are certainly accepted but not required.

Remember, we have only two dogmas: that God is Trinity in Unity, and that Jesus Christ, who is the second person of the Trinity, is the Savior. Everything else, including what we believe about Mary, is up for discussion.

For example, Episcopalians believe in the real presence of Jesus Christ, in the Eucharist. How that happens, whether the molecules of the bread and wine are physically altered or not, doesn’t matter. We acknowledge that it’s a mystery.

The point for us isn’t so much HOW God does it but THAT God does it.

And the point of this gospel story is that God took human form. And the human body God chose to inhabit was born of Mary, the daughter of Joachim and Anne, from Nazareth.

What’s amazing about our Christian narrative is that God invites us into active participation from the beginning. From to stories Genesis through to this gospel from Luke, God seeks our partnership, our companionship, our relationship.

Tradition tells us that Mary was a devout Jewish peasant girl just shy of marrying age. Already engaged to Joseph, Mary was heading into a fairly typical and predictable life, the only complication being that her husband-to-be was a good bit older, which meant she might end up widowed at an early age. Having sons would safeguard her from a widowhood of poverty.

In this gospel story, the one we read today, St. Luke tells us that Mary was visited by the angel Gabriel. I want to stop here and have us check our assumptions about what this means. When I imagine this scene, I imagine Mary in her room alone, and the angel, Gabriel, comes and he has big wings and is surrounded by a heavenly light – he looks like an angel. But Scripture tells us that angels are hard to recognize.

When Mary saw the angel she was “stirred up” (which is how the Greek translates there). Perplexed is not wrong it isn’t. But it leaves out the accompanying physical sensation that often happens when the veil between heaven and earth is lifted. It’s an excited state – on the verge of overwhelming.

So there is Mary, alone in her room, and all of a sudden, there’s a man there, and he says to her, “Don’t be alarmed… you’re safe… for God’s grace is lighting upon you.” This phrase brings to mind what happened when the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus at his baptism and on the disciples at the first Pentecost. It’s how God does. God lights upon us, gently, like a dove.

Then the angel prophesies to Mary: ‘You will conceive and bear a son. You will name him Jesus (which in Hebrew is Joshua, and it means ‘YAHWEH is salvation.’ It also means ‘deliverer’). He will be great, like his ancestor David was, but of his kingdom there will be no end.’

Mary asks how this could happen since she had, at this time, not known a man and she was not yet married. The angel’s reply was that the Holy Spirit would “overshadow” her and she would conceive a son, like her elderly cousin Elizabeth had just done, because “nothing will be impossible with God.”

We need to remember that the spirit of God also overshadowed Moses on Mt. Sinai, and Peter, James, and John, on the mount of Transfiguration. This is also how God does.

Then Mary gave her “yes” saying: “Let it be to me according to your word” and Gabriel left her.

When God chose to become one of us, God chose to partner with us in order to accomplish the plan of salvation. This was no small invitation. Mary would be called upon to submit her whole self – her body and her life – to this.

Back then, childbirth was a risky business, and Mary was only about 14 years old – on the young side for childbearing. In addition, being favored by God sounds like a good thing, but it didn’t mean she would avoid pain and suffering. To the contrary, by saying ‘yes” Mary invited a whole lot of pain and suffering into her life.

Being found pregnant before her marriage to Joseph would have ruined Mary’s reputation and could have cost her her life. She could have been stoned to death according to Jewish law. Or, she could have been divorced by her fiancĂ© and cast out from her community, ending up alone, exiled, and destitute: which is basically a death sentence for a woman of that time.

So you see, this was no small invitation and no small “yes” given.

Mary’s “yes” to God eventually led her to witness the execution of her first-born son. It was also the death of her expectation about salvation. Jews in that time believed that a Davidic king would come and free the Jewish people from Roman occupation. God had something else in mind…

And sometimes, the death of what we think and what we expect is what makes the accomplishment of God’s unfathomable plan possible. This is what Jesus was talking about when he said we had to die to ourselves in order to live.

Death and resurrection are at the core of our Christian narrative and it’s why you’ll often hear me say, “We’re Christians. We don’t fear death. Death for us is simply the doorway to new life.”

In her new book called “Pastrix,” Lutheran pastor and author Nadia Bolz Weber says: “God chose to reveal who God is by slipping into skin and walking among us as Jesus. And the love and grace and mercy of Jesus was so offensive that we killed him… But death could not contain God. God said “yes” to all of our polite “no thank yous” by rising from the dead. Death and resurrection. It is the Christian story as it has been told to [us], starting with Mary Magdalene, the first one to tell it; and as it has been confirmed in [our] experience.” (p xvii).

At the tender age of 14, Mary, daughter of Anne and Joachim, gave her “yes” to God and died to herself. She bore the Christ into human life, making room for the plan of God’s salvation to be manifest in the most unexpected way.

Partnering with God means trusting that we too are favored by God – which literally means that God will make us acceptable for the purpose God has for us. Partnering with God means going where God leads, no matter how the path looks at any given moment, trusting that God will only lead us to salvation- and not just us, but the whole world.

This same invitation was extended to us at our Baptism and is given to us again today - and it’s no small invitation for us either. Like Mary, God calls us to submit our whole selves, our bodies and our lives. Like Mary, we will be made acceptable. We have no reason to believe that we will be spared pain and suffering. Mary wasn’t, neither was Jesus.

We aren’t here to avoid anything. We’re here to welcome everyone and everything as a gift from God; even the hard things. We are here to live the fullness of life promised to us by our Savior and to fulfill our purpose as partners with God in the plan of salvation.

Magnify our souls like Mary’s was, O Lord, and may our spirits rejoice in God our Savior. For God has looked with favor on us, his lowly servants, and from this day all generations will call us blessed. The Almighty has done great things for us and holy is his name. Amen.

1 comment:

brotherMonte said...

Grateful for another inspiring message.